Printed labels are universal on almost every good and service available to us. They allow acquisition and management of data, along with recording and tracking of items and information to a very sophisticated level. These qualities make them highly versatile, and their usage endless across a multitude of industries. The digital packaging and labels industry is set to be worth a massive $15.3 billion by 2018.
Given this versatility and their measurable benefits, it is unsurprising that printed labels play a crucial role in an industry where precision is of critical importance: the medical and healthcare fields.
Labels are used in a variety of applications in the medical field from research labs to vials for blood samples to urine specimens. The use of printed labels within the industry is endless, and they have now become a mainstay in hospitals, general practice surgeries, and pharmacies, alongside other medical facilities around the world.
In an area where even the simplest of mistakes can lead to significant consequences, it is imperative that printed labels are designed and implemented correctly to ensure they deliver the highest standard of health and safety.
Communication of Medical Information is Key
Given the wide range of people who use and read printed labels within the healthcare industry, it is critical they are made to cater to their intended audience. With global populations now living longer, there is a need for greater access to healthcare for an aging population. As such, printed labels must be designed in a way that is easy to read and understand, so the medical information is interpreted correctly.
Printed labels can be preprinted to a specific design that suits individual needs. They can be made in different label sizes and shapes, with different font sizes and styles, allowing them to communicate information in a clear and legible way. This makes sure the elderly, as well as those over a spectrum of age ranges with varying levels of literacy, will not get confused and ensures the risk for misinterpretation of medical information is minimized.
Of course, it is not just the elderly or those with poorer literacy levels that benefit from the design versatility of printed labels. Medical professionals must also be able to read and interpret the information correctly, to enable provision of efficient healthcare. By being easy to read, it minimizes the risk of a mistake when providing care. However, the labels must also be able to communicate the full depth of what is often very complicated medical information. To ensure these requirements are met, printed labels are designed to a specific set of legal guidelines.
Printed labels come in different color schemes to indicate different strengths of drugs, to ensure prescription medication is taken correctly, and that drugs are administered using the correct dosage.
Certain term protocols exist that ensures the information conveyed to the user remains the same no matter what the environment or who the user is.
However, language can vary depending on the environment it is used. In facilities such as laboratories, which are only ever used by experienced and skilled lab technicians’, language is permitted to be more specific and scientific (such as abbreviations, and scientific symbols). Whereas information printed on a label on the back of a prescribed medication box is less scientific and easy for everyone to comprehend.
Durability in a Range of Clinical and Non-Clinical Environments
With such a versatile array of uses within the medical industry, it is essential that printed labels are designed for a wide variety of environments. They must be a very durable design to survive 24/7 duty cycle in many challenging environments within the industry.
All printed labels are manufactured using very high-tech materials that are made to last and are often permanent. However, their components such as adhesive and paper type, are designed specifically depending on their intended use. Apart from often rigorous day-to-day handling, they must often survive the use of cleaning solvents, temperature extremes (ranging from -320°F – +725°F) and even wet environments.
Within the healthcare profession, a multitude of things are kept in freezers, such as specimens in cryogenic laboratories, transplant organs, dental products, and even disinfectants. To ensure they survive these cold temperature conditions, special ‘freezer resistant labels’ are designed. They use a high-quality white paper that is coated with a moisture barrier, which is set atop a permanent adhesive to ensure it does not ‘unstick.’
Correct application of the label is also key to ensure it is still readable post-application, especially if it will be scanned, such as barcodes.
The use of barcodes on printed labels has become particularly prominent within the medical profession in the past decade. With a high-quality printed barcode label, a vast amount of encrypted medical information can be obtained almost instantly.
Provision of information from such a fast, up-to-the-minute and reliable information system allows individuals to obtain specific information very quickly, without the worry of gathering it from other people. Blood banks are a great example of how printed labels are utilized to minimize potential healthcare risks. Barcodes are placed on each blood bag, containing information of blood type, to ensure there is a minimized risk of mix-ups upon transfer to a healthcare facility.
Studies have shown that barcodes can reduce medical errors by as much as 41%. The decrease in medical errors has been so prominent, that since 2006, the FDA has made it mandatory for pharmaceutical manufacturers to provide a barcode on prescription medication.
With such a drastic decrease in medical errors occurring from barcodes, the use of barcodes is becoming a standard operating practice in many medical facilities, particularly in hospitals. In an environment where such an importance is placed on health and safety, since the early 2000s, most hospitals have moved to an automatic data capture (ADC) environment.
Application Within Hospital Environments
It is undeniable that hospital environments require the most precise system for information communication and therefore has the widest potential for the use of printed labels. Modern day hospitals use a diverse array of medical equipment and supplies, ranging from bandages to high-tech robotic surgery implements. Given this great array of equipment, many hospitals are using barcode applications, both clinical and non-clinical, to create an efficient system for identification.
They are one of the best and most efficient processes for managing medical orders and supplies, as well as expensive equipment and complicated logistics. This enables logging and tracking of thousands of items within hospitals, to ensure important medical supplies never run out. Almost every logistical process in a hospital benefits from the use of printed label barcodes ranging from a stock room employee to the floor nurse who conducts an inventory check for re-ordering.
With the use of barcodes now becoming even easier with the help of tablets and smartphone apps; barcoded printed labels are accurate, efficient and affordable. This adds bottom-line efficiency and allows a further enhancement of the overall care quality hospitals provide.
Not only can barcodes be used to identify stock and complicated medical equipment, but they can also be used within hospitals for a similar purpose to blood banks. Hospitals use barcodes to identify drawn blood for lab testing. This significantly reduces the chance of a mix-up between blood specimens to ensure the correct results for the correct patient are derived.
However, one extremely important use of printed labels within hospitals, perhaps the most important, is the use of barcodes for patient wristbands. Wristbands with customized barcodes that are printed at the patient’s registrations are a means to clearly identify the patient and provide patient-critical data, such as medication allergies, any chronic health conditions, and dietary needs/restrictions.
The wristband can be updated to give an up-to-the-minute medical history of the patient, such as current status and any dosage amount changes. This information can be regularly updated from admittance to discharge and can also be very easily sent over between hospitals laboratories or other medical facilities should it be required. Since the wristbands remain with the patient throughout the hospital visit, the printed label is designed using materials that are durable enough to withstand exposure to a wide range of substances, such as hand sanitizers and moisture.
Undoubtedly printed labels come into their own in this regard, as it allows healthcare professionals to gather a vast amount of information about a patient, often before they even see them. This reduces costs and saves time, therefore maximizing efficiency and providing care to the highest standard while also minimizing risk to the patient.
Protection of Patient Confidentiality
Labels have become a crucial part of the legal aspects of medicine. While it is undeniable that printed labels are invaluable to the medical industry, given the nature of the field, they contain a large amount of confidential information. Printed labels are designed to abide by regulations set out in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which ensures patient data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information.
Design of printed patient wristbands is crucial to ensure that patient medical information is kept confidential. To meet HIPAA standards, they are designed with several built-in security features. Firstly, they can be manufactured with a specific adhesive, that prevents reapplication. When they are taken off, they rip, making them unreadable once removed.
Additionally, they can also be printed in a way that means the information or barcode begins to fatigue and fade after a certain period. Typically, barcoded printed labels for wristbands are printed using thermal printing. This technology is either direct-thermal or thermal-transfer printing, with each being used for individual requirements. Direct-thermal printing creates the printed label uses a print head to apply heat directly to a chemically treated label. They require no ink, nor a ribbon – only a copy of the barcode.
In thermal-transfer printing, a ribbon is treated by a print head, melting the image onto the label, creating a highly durable and long-lasting application. Direct-thermal printing is generally the preferred method for printing confidential medical information labels such as barcoded wristbands, as there is no ribbon to destroy to comply with HIPAA patient privacy requirements.
Thermal printing creates wristbands that can be worn for 14 days, ensuring enough time for longer-term inpatients, so they are still ensuring efficiency for use, but also means they diminish in clarity so that confidential data does not stay stored on them for long. It is possible to create printed wristbands for shorter term inpatients, by using different printing techniques such as laser printing. This preprints wristbands that last for 3-4 days before fading, further securing patient confidentiality and keeping data private and safe.
There are strict regulations in place when it comes to disposing of hazardous materials and waste in the medical community. Labels can be preprinted with a warning, so they are easily recognizable by staff. Other pertinent information such as ingredients or expiration date can also be included.
It is clear the use of printed labels within the medical industry is extremely broad, and their use adds a new element to health and safety that we have never seen before. They can help ensure patients interpret instructions from doctors accurately and take prescription medication the correct way. Healthcare provision is also enhanced, as they allow a method of information communication that limits the risk of misinterpretation by healthcare professionals, but also in a rapid timeframe, to enable fast and efficient caregiving.
With modern-day technology advancements, they are now designed to withstand a staggering array of conditions, that are necessary for many medical supplies to be stored in. This ensures they are durable and built to last permanently so they can continue giving accurate information over long time frames.
Conversely, we can also be sure that our medical details remain safe, with their designs also aimed to protect our information, by essentially deleting themselves after a certain period. Given their now widespread application within the medical field, we can be sure they will be increasing health and safety within our healthcare systems for many years to come.